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Federal judge refuses to halt work on Arch's West Elk expansion

A federal judge has denied a restraining order sought by environmental groups that would have blocked Arch Coal Inc. from expanding its West Elk mine.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued permits for two coal lease modifications for the Colorado mine Dec. 15. The leases total 1,721 acres in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests in Gunnison County, Colo. The U.S. Forest Service earlier consented to the lease modifications.

Environmental groups High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Wilderness Workshop filed a complaint Dec. 15 against the decision and various government agencies and asked a federal judge to institute a restraining order on Arch that would stop it from commencing work on the lease until the court makes a decision on the complaint.

Shannon Hughes of WildEarth Guardians, who attended the court session, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that a "conservative judge" in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado said "the magnitude of our harm was not that great" and that the damage to the landscape caused by the lease construction would not be substantial.

Arch did not reply to a request for comment on the decision.

Hughes said the complaint will likely receive a hearing sometime in January.

The environmental groups are alleging that the agencies did not analyze a range of reasonable alternatives in their environmental impact statements as required under the National Environmental Policy Act and that this failure is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law."

They also argued that the agencies did not examine the cumulative effects of the expanded leases or consider the social cost of carbon.

"In its analysis of climate pollution, the Forest Service's EIS fails to address the fact that making additional coal available from the North Fork Coal Mining Area will reduce the price of coal-fired electricity, inducing greater demand for that electricity, and thus greater climate pollution. By failing to account for this impact, the Forest Service failed to take the required hard look at the nature and extent of these impacts," the complaint said.

"The court's denial is a blow to snowy Colorado winters and a prescription for drier, more fire-prone summers," said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, in a Dec. 21 press release. "Expanding the mine will intensify the climate crisis, endanger public health and deal a huge blow to Colorado's outdoor recreation economy."